Rokita Offers Sound Plan for Mapping Democracy

September 14, 2009

For release noon Sept. 15 and thereafter (675 words)

Legislators aren’t exactly embracing Todd Rokita’s proposal to remove politics from the process of drawing legislative maps, and it’s sadly obvious why: It threatens their re-election chances. Why give up the tool that lets them maintain partisan majorities and safe seats for themselves and their cohorts?

It’s the right thing to do; that’s why. In 2010, the Census will give us updated population numbers upon which congressional and state legislative districts will be based. Under Rokita’s plan, lawmakers would have to create compact districts that respect county, township and municipal boundaries and deviate only when necessary to meet requirements like one-man, one-vote. No more salamander-shaped districts that defy logic and geography. The plan, unveiled Sept. 8 in an address to the Indianapolis Rotary Club, would prohibit consideration of incumbents’ addresses and party voting histories.

The only thing “radical” about Rokita’s plan is a provision that would make it a felony to take politics into account. Rokita admits he put that language in as an attention-grabber. Change the penalty to a misdemeanor and opposition should fade away. Yet lawmakers have come up with all sorts of other reasons to grumble.

Perhaps the silliest: It’s not his business. Of course it is. Any Hoosier registered to vote has a stake in the drawing of political districts. If the districts are rigged to ensure a certain outcome, the right to vote is diminished. As secretary of state, Rokita is the state’s chief elections officer, responsible for overseeing elections and voter eligibility laws. His expertise in these areas makes him well suited to champion reform.

Objection No. 2: Drawing boundaries is a legislative function under the state Constitution. No argument there, and Rokita hasn’t suggested otherwise. Under his plan, the legislative branch retains full control over the process. This is in sharp contrast to another plan being tried in California and under discussion elsewhere: the establishment of independent commissions to draw lines. While this idea has merit, it moves accountability further from the citizens. With legislators in charge of the process, voters know exactly whom to blame. You’d think legislators would prefer Rokita’s plan for this reason.

Complaint No. 3: Rokita’s plan is a lazy way to draw lines. This statement was made by Senate President Pro Tem and fellow Republican David Long of Fort Wayne. Perhaps Long meant to use the word “easier.” Yes, it’s easier to use politically neutral criteria than political ones. And it’s far more practical. To the extent possible, Rokita’s plan would rely on computer software to do the actual design work. ”This is a very algorithmic process,” Rokita said. Humans would still play a role to make sure the maps conform to laws and court rulings about minority voting rights, among other issues.

One more complaint, this one leveled by political bloggers with too much time on their hands: Rokita misused his office by spending $110,000 to hire a firm to draw sample maps and to set up a website where voters can learn about the issue and submit their own ideas. This is money well spent. Research is an essential step in policymaking. You can bet the White House has spent gobs on its health care reform initiative. Rokita’s maps demolish the argument that compact and politically neutral maps just can’t be drawn. “I proved that this could be done,” he said. Public understanding and input are essential to get his proposal through the legislature. (The web site is: http://www.rethinkingredistricting.com.)

There may be better plans than Rokita’s. Rep. Jerry Torr, R-Carmel, has been pushing the idea of a bipartisan commission that would be appointed by legislative leaders. Common Cause of Indiana has suggested letting the Legislative Services Agency, the non-political arm of the legislature, do the job. The legislature should look at all the options but mustn’t abdicate responsibility to clean up the process.

Rokita is right when he says redistricting is the threshold issue that determines whether a citizen is part of the process or whether his voice is artificially silenced.  The ball is in the legislature’s court.

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.



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